A history of mourning dress codes in Britain


Written by the author Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

Elizabeth II Out of respect for the Queen, members of the British royal family will stick to a dark dress code at Monday’s state funeral.

King Charles will wear a full day’s ceremonial uniform with medals, and the Queen will wear the red velvet and gold sash given to him in 2012 when he was appointed. Prince Edward, Princess Anne and Prince William will wear military uniforms and medals.

Meanwhile, Prince Andrew and Prince Harry are expected to wear civilian clothes despite being retired service members, as neither has an official royal role. (However, they were allowed to wear military uniforms at their respective vigils on the weekend).

Women will wear black dresses and formal hats, while men will wear black morning coats.

Prince William, Catherine, Princess of Wales, Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex after paying tribute to Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Hall, London, Wednesday, September 14, 2022. Credit: Emilio Morenatti / AP

Even in times of grief, much attention is paid to how members of the royal family interpret the dress codes, which are hundreds of years old and have changed over time.

In 1982, photos seen at the funeral of Princess Diana of Monaco, actress and princess Grace Kelly, show the newlyweds in a straw hat, long-sleeved black dress and heart necklace — a fitting choice that still showed her naturalness. sense of style

“(Princess Diana) had this sense of looking at what the public expected and knowing how to hit the right note,” British fashion historian and curator Kate Strasdin said in a 2021 video interview.

Diana, Princess of Wales, at the funeral of Princess Grace of Monaco, 18 September 1982.

Diana, Princess of Wales, at the funeral of Princess Grace of Monaco, 18 September 1982. Credit: Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

Taken at the Princess of Wales’s own funeral in 1997, the harrowing image of Prince Philip, Prince William, Diana’s brother Charles Spencer, Prince Harry and Prince Charles following the coffin in dark robes is one of the most-quoted photographs in contemporary royal history. and emblematic of modern royal funeral attire. Nicole Kidman and Elton John were among the celebrities who duly complied with the dress code for the funeral, watched by millions of people around the world.

“Visual Symbol of Mourning”

Although black has long been the color of choice for mourning — it was popular among the wealthy in the Middle Ages — mourning became ubiquitous in the 19th century.
According to Strasdin, mourning dress codes took hold in Europe and America during this period, particularly for women, driven by the rise of women’s publications and cheaper clothing. (Harper’s Bazaar, for example, recommended to readers Aiming for “nun-like simplicity” in 1868.)
Royal funeral attire has long been a symbol of mourning and propriety.  Elizabeth II wore a long veil after the death of her father, King George VI.

Royal funeral attire has long been a symbol of mourning and propriety. Elizabeth II wore a long veil after the death of her father, King George VI. Credit: Mirrorpix/Getty Images

The modern shop was also born out of the nascent funeral industry. Around the 1840s, Strasdin said, the “massive emporiums” that sprang up in London and Paris served as a one-stop shop for funeral needs.

“Under one roof, you can get everything from stationery to mourning jewelry,” she said.

A person’s mourning style “served as a visual symbol of mourning . . . It simultaneously revealed the wearer’s status, taste, and level of propriety,” stated the introductory text to the 2014 exhibit “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire.” Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Women wearing a belize dress and a half mourning dress.  The modern shop was born out of the popularity of mourning styles.

Women wearing a belize dress and a half mourning dress. The modern shop was born out of the popularity of mourning styles. Credit: De Agostini Publishing/Getty Images

Etiquette author DC Colesworthy had an insight into the trend in his 1867 book Hints of Common Politeness, as cited in the Met exhibit. “When we see that the lady continues to wear the saber, we are reminded of the response of a young widow to her mother: “Don’t you see,” she said, “I save the expense of advertising a husband who told me,” he wrote. .

Black retired briefly in 1938 after the death of Queen Elizabeth II’s grandmother, the Countess of Strathmore. One photo shows the Queen Mother wearing a white dress designed by Norman Hartnell to honor her mother’s death. The concept of “white mourning” followed the example of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was painted in a white mourning dress in the 16th century.
The Queen Mother broke with tradition after her mother's death in 1938, wearing mourning styles. "white wardrobe" Designed for him by Norman Hartnell.

The Queen Mother broke with tradition after her mother’s death in 1938, wearing a mourning style called the “white wardrobe” designed by Norman Hartnell. Credit: Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“Forever Widow”

But no one had a greater impact on mourning than Queen Victoria. After the unexpected death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861, the monarch expressed her grief very publicly, wearing black every day for four decades until her death. It was Victoria who helped codify the nuances of mourning fashion and maintained her identity as an “eternal widow,” according to Strasdin.

The half-mourning dress worn by Queen Victoria 33 years after Albert's death.

The half-mourning dress worn by Queen Victoria 33 years after Albert’s death. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

During the Victorian era, “even the little details of clothing that indicate you’re in the mourning stage became very important,” Strasdin explains. It showed wealth and status to be able to afford an entire mourning wardrobe, as well as to understand all the rules of society.

For a year and a day, widows were expected to wear full mourning attire, known as “widow’s weeds,” consisting of unadorned matte black crepe fabric, according to Strasdin. As one’s grief faded, colors and other textures could slowly be reintroduced. Finally, during the last six months of the two-and-a-half year period, “half-mourning” outfits could be worn in shades of white, gray, pale yellow, or lilac or lavender. Sometimes they were deep purple: the “Death Becomes Her” show featured a wool twill and silk velvet dress with bold shoulders, black trim and intricate white and gold detailing.

Although it was customary to return to a normal wardrobe after a year-long period of mourning, Queen Victoria continued to wear black mourning clothes for the rest of her life. As “Death Becomes Her” showed, one of Victoria’s dresses in 1894 — 33 years after Albert’s death — was a dark black crepe dress with a simple cut.

The stages of grief were represented by fabric choices, colors, and embellishments.  Queen Alexandra deliberately loosened the rigid codes for mourning dress under Victoria.

The stages of grief were represented by fabric choices, colors, and embellishments. Queen Alexandra deliberately loosened the rigid codes for mourning dress under Victoria. Credit: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Victoria’s display of perpetual displeasure was not popular with her subjects, who encouraged a more rigid dress code, Strasdin noted. His daughter, Queen Alexandra, marked a change, loosening restrictions when Queen Victoria passed and after the death of her eldest son. Alexandra opted for bright half-mourning dresses in silk chiffon and mauve sequins, as well as yellows and pale greys.

“He knew the public really struggled with Victoria’s ongoing grief,” Strasdin said. “So Queen Alexandra accepted half-mourning for the rest of her life because she knew that going into full mourning would not be a popular public choice.”

Over the decades, the practical traditions of the mourning wardrobe were long gone, but the Victorian influence is still present in modern times of royal mourning, from stark colors to rigid adherence to dress codes. “Despite the changes, I think the 19th century is still great,” Strasdin said.

Top image caption: The Duke of Edinburgh, Prince William, Earl Spencer, Prince Harry and Prince Charles walk outside Westminster Abbey during the funeral service for Diana, Princess of Wales, on September 6, 1997.